BY ART BUKOWSKI
TRAVERSE CITY — Fear consumed David Walter as he languished in the Grand Traverse County jail for more than two months.
The sheriff's department arrested Walter for a violent September assault along the Boardman Lake Trail. He vigorously professed his innocence from the start, but his claims fell on deaf ears. As court proceedings dragged on, Walter worried that he might go to prison for a crime he didn't commit.
"I felt hopeless. I felt scared," he said. "It was mind-blowing. This was a serious crime."
Prosecutors ultimately dismissed criminal charges against Walter, a Native American, in December. Cell phone records and a witness statement indicated he was on the phone in Kingsley at the time of the assault.
Walter, a Suttons Bay native who's lived in Kingsley for more than 20 years, was relieved to have the charges dropped. But after everything that happened — including widespread use of his booking photo by local news media — he believes he's also a victim.
"It's terrible. I hate to even go out in public," he said. "I'm cleared of it, but I stick out like a sore thumb now."
A woman was walking her dog along the trail near Art Van Furniture on Sept. 16 when a man came up from behind, wrapped his arms around her and tried to pull her off the trail. She escaped and called police.
She provided information to a police sketch artist, who drew an image that resembled Walter. Deputies circulated the image and were told it looked like him, and Walter contacted authorities when he heard they were looking for him.
The victim said her attacker appeared Native American, and a police report indicates she was "100 percent" positive Walter did it when shown his picture in a photo lineup. Walter was charged with a felony count of attempted unlawful imprisonment and a misdemeanor assault count.
From the start he said phone records would clear him, and those records ultimately did lead authorities to dismiss charges.
Undersheriff Nate Alger said investigators determined Walter's cellphone was being used in Kingsley at about the time of the assault. Authorities interviewed a woman who was on the other end of that conversation, and she confirmed she was talking to Walter, not someone else who had his phone.
"Chances are he wasn't on the phone while he was attempting to abduct someone on the trail," Alger said.
Alger said he agreed with prosecutors' decision to drop charges. It's possible the victim could have mixed up the time of the assault — and therefore that Walter could in fact have been involved — but the phone evidence couldn't be ignored.
"You can't hold someone with that information in hand," he said. "Until we have something that counteracts that, that's where we are."
Alger said detectives have been in contact with the victim, and the investigation is ongoing.
"We're not trying to go out and prove that David Walter did this," he said. "We are trying to identify who was responsible for the attempted abduction."
The victim declined comment for this story. Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Bob Cooney said the victim told investigators that the person in the photo given to local news media — which wasn't the same used in the photo lineup — looked different than her memory of the suspect. But Cooney contends she didn't back down from her initial identification, and the photo issue didn't play a role in his office's decision to drop charges.
Walter remembers when charges were dropped. A deputy who released him didn't have much to say, he said.
"He just came in and said 'We're sorry for your mishap'," he said. "Sorry just doesn't cut it."
Walter said he sympathizes with the victim and "doesn't hold any grudges." But he thinks his race played a role the arrest, and that's upsetting.
"I'm Native American with a ponytail, and that's why all of this came about," he said. "Everybody says all of us Indians look alike."
He's also very upset with sheriff's officials. He's in touch with attorneys and is considering legal action against the county.
"They did a sloppy job," he said. "I hope they don't make the same mistake twice."
Walter struggles with mental illness and lost his low-income apartment in Kingsley when he was arrested. He's fighting to get that back, along with various other forms of government assistance that stopped upon his arrest.
Alger said he doesn't consider his department's investigation flawed, especially given the victim's identification of Walter in the photo lineup.